How Do You Retain Women through Collaborative Learning?

A collaborative learning environment occurs anytime an instructor requires students to work together on learning activities. Collaborative learning environments can involve both formal and informal activities and may or may not include direct assessment. For example, pairs of students work on programming assignments; small groups of students discuss possible answers to a professor’s question during lecture; and students work together outside of class to learn new concepts. Collaborative learning is distinct from projects where students “divide and conquer.” When students divide the work, each is responsible for only part of the problem solving and there are very limited opportunities for working through problems with others. In collaborative environments, students are engaged in intellectual talk with each other.

A long tradition of research shows that well-managed collaborative learning environments lead to improved student outcomes, including:

  • improved critical thinking
  • increased retention, especially for women advancing from the introductory to second course
  • appreciation of diversity
  • development of social and professional skills
In computer science, collaborative learning environments can improve retention and student learning. Pair programming is shown to improve retention of both female and male undergraduates. Students who pair in their introductory programming classes gain more confidence in programming than do their non-paired peers, are more likely to complete and pass the class, and are more likely to persist in IT majors. Aside from project-based courses, there are many other educational interventions based in collaborative learning, such as peer teaching and the non-lecture based “conversational classroom.”

Collaborative learning environments have to be carefully planned and managed by instructors. For example, research shows that when there is too large a gap in collaborators’ experience or knowledge, the benefits of collaborative learning disappear. Tasks must also be “shareable” for true collaboration to occur.

Most capstone courses in computing education include project learning. However, student collaboration should be introduced early, often, and in both graded and un-graded situations to give undergraduates greater experience and to avoid early socialization that computing is a career in which people work alone. Pair programming (see reverse) has been shown to be effective for realizing increased retention, application to the major, and learning outcomes, and is a frequently practiced method in the workforce. While implementing collaborative environments is complex, the benefits to students, faculty, and industry appear to be worth the cost.



In an educational system that rewards individual work, student collaboration is often considered cheating. Computing syllabi around the world have statements like, “we encourage collaborative learning,” but “students must turn in individual work.” When students work together to design solutions to homework problems, however, their individual work may strongly resemble that of their collaborators.

So how do you know whether a student learned or cheated? The answer requires careful thought about the behaviors that count as academic dishonesty. In the working world, individuals rarely complete assignments in isolation. The challenge for faculty is to find ways to assess individual outcomes, while leveraging the benefits of collaboration.

Experts recommend revisiting course design and assessment and explicitly and concretely discussing the behaviors that will be interpreted as cheating, and they encourage faculty to make assignments meaningful to students and to explain the value of what students will learn by completing them. Most university campuses have resource centers that will work with faculty to integrate collaborative learning in ways that deter academic dishonesty.



Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a collaborative and active learning technique that forms students in a course into a community of scholars and leads them to take responsibility for their learning. It involves teams of six to eight students that meet weekly in a workshop with a trained peer leader who is under direction of the instructor. During the meeting, the group engages in interesting problem-solving exercises. According to a description of peer-led team learning provided by the PLTL Project at the City College of New York, project evaluations identify six key workshop features:

  1. All students in the course must attend the workshops, which are a regular component of the course. This feature encourages students to view the workshop as important to their learning, and integrates workshop activities with course lectures.
  2. Course instructors are closely involved with both workshops and workshop leaders. Instructors prepare and review workshop materials and preview problems with peer leaders.
  3. Workshop leaders successfully completed the course, are familiar with the assigned workshop problems, are well-trained in teaching and learning techniques and leadership of small groups, and are closely supervised.
  4. Workshop materials are challenging at an appropriate level, integrated with other course components, and encourage active and collaborative problem solving.
  5. Physical space, allocated time, and other organizational arrangements promote learning.
  6. The institution supports innovative teaching.
Instructors must invest time and energy to initially organize PLTL instruction and to assemble workshop materials. After this initial investment, the amount of work involved with a PLTL course is often less than a standard course because fewer students require help during office hours.



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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon